Colleges conduct exhaustive and costly searches for their athletic head coaches. They’ll employ search teams, hire headhunters. But sometimes, the answer is sitting right there in the mail room.
A few years ago, Patrick Ryan was working maintenance at Daemen College when he heard the school was starting a competitive esports team.
Ryan, a Tonawanda native, had been an avid video gamer since 2002, when he competed at a high level in a game called Magic: The Gathering. He still had gaming in his blood. Maybe these college kids could use some help.
“I’ve never really grown up,” Ryan said last week. “I’ve always played in my free time. When I heard Daemen was doing this, I started volunteering. Eventually, they talked about putting me in as coach. It’s been history ever since.”
There’s been some fine history, too. In May of 2020, in Ryan’s first season as the Daemen esports head coach, the Wildcats won their first title — taking the East Coast Conference’s League of Legends championship.
The Wildcats never got to compete in last year’s League of Legends nationals, which were canceled due to the coronavirus. Still, it was a huge achievement for Daemen, which was the first competitive gaming program at a private institution in the Buffalo region.
Daemen has made great strides in its athletic department since becoming an NCAA program a decade ago. While gaming is still not an official NCAA sport, the college has been on the cutting edge of a sky-rocketing national trend.
“It’s past anything I could ever imagine, how fast it’s grown and how accepting everybody is,” Ryan said last week in the esports lab at the Wick Campus Center. “Here at Daemen, they treat us like any other sports team. Anything we need, they get for us. We have great support here, including scholarships.”
The scholarship money isn’t as large as for some other sports. “But it helps,” Ryan said with a laugh.
Along with resources, Ryan also gets the pressures and realities of a typical college coach. He lost some key players from the title team to graduation. The COVID-19 pandemic kept some potential players away from school last season. And like any coach, he needs to recruit.
This past season, the Wildcats fell to fourth in the ECC, which plays the League of Legends game. In ‘The League,’ which is one of the most popular video games around, five-person teams (5v5, as they call it) compete in an online battle arena.
It’s a bit complicated for the uninitiated (i.e., an old sportswriter who grew up playing Strat-o-Matic Baseball). Suffice it to say, competitive video gaming is one of the fastest-growing pastimes on the planet, and college esports are almost sure to grow in the coming years.
As a spectator sport, it has exploded in recent years. According to the gaming market research firm Newzoo, the global audience for esports is up by 20 percent in 2021 — to an estimated 474 million. That figure is expected to jump about another 20 percent, to 577 million, by 2024.
By 2024, it is estimated that global esports revenues will double to around $1.6 billion. Keep in mind, the industry has been negatively impacted during the pandemic, with the cancellation of in-person events diminishing sales of tickets and merchandise.
It seems only a matter of time before the NCAA and the Olympics get on board. Esports didn’t make the cut for the Paris Olympics in 2024, losing out to climbing, break-dancing and skateboarding.
But the International Olympic Committee partnered with five sports federations to create an Olympic Virtual Series, which will be held ahead of the Tokyo Games in May and June in an attempt to “mobilize virtual sport, esports and gaming enthusiasts all around the world.”
In 2019, the NCAA’s Board of Governors tabled an esports proposal. The NCAA has concerns about Title IX (the majority of gamers are male) and eligibility rules in a sport where young people can win prize money, and lots of it.
In the 2019 Fortnite World Cup, solo champion Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf won $3 million. Giersdorf was 16 years old. Jaden Ashman, a 15-year-old Brit, won half of $2.25 million when he and a teammate finished second at Fortnite, in which 40 million players attempted to qualify.
“That would be pretty cool,” said freshman Jonathan Bradfield, the Daemen captain. “I’m here for college, but if I had that opportunity, I’d love to be in that position.”
Bradfield, a Spencerport native, walked on to the team this year. He quickly proved to be one of the best gamers on the roster, which has 17 men and two women. As the sport grows in popularity and other colleges add teams, Ryan has a greater need to expand his recruiting base.
“There’s a couple of avenues,” Ryan said. “We’re working with Batavia High School. They were unfamiliar with how to run an esports program. So basically, interested students signed up, and I host practices for Batavia students, too.
“There is a website for all athletes, called ‘Be Recruited,'” he said. “That’s rampant with potential esports athletes looking for scholarships.
“It’s weird. If you’re a basketball coach, you look for basketball players. But if I’m an esports coach, I not only have to find the esports athlete, I have to find out what game, what position in that game I’m trying to get recruits for. There’s a little more research.”
Bradfield’s game is Rocket League, a video soccer game that’s one of the most popular in the world.
“The basic premise is soccer with cars,” Bradfield said. “You have the ball. You drive and hit the ball with the car. But there’s a more mechanical side of it. Your car can fly, you can do flips, you can control the ball in the air, you can dribble the ball on top of your car. It’s super liquid in that people are always finding new things to do.
“It’s pretty wild, some of the things you see.”
It has also been called one of the most difficult games to master. Ryan said it’s “insane” how much time people will invest in devising new angles and strategies for Rocket League.
Ryan refers to his players as “athletes,” which raises an obvious question. Are gamers really athletes? Are esports really sports? Or is it more of an addiction?
“It’s just like regular sports,” Bradfield said. “Once you get so into it, it doesn’t feel like an addiction or a job. It’s just something you love to do.”
“I watched every hour of the NFL draft last weekend, so I guess I have an addiction to that,” Ryan said with a laugh.
“Just like every other team sport, there’s the team atmosphere, right? You have to build a bond with them. You have to strategize which play style works best for you. There’s a mentality to the game. And the mechanics, you have to know what you’re doing. And that takes a lot. It takes a lot to remember what button to press for five minutes in an extremely competitive situation.”
Hand-eye coordination, quickness, teamwork – esports has all the elements of so-called real sports. There must be some of the intellectual pressure of a chess match, right? Bradfield said he doesn’t feel much pressure.
“Just going in and trying to have fun is honestly the biggest mental way to go into a game,” he said. “If you go into a game solely to win, if you lose your mentality is going to go down and that will affect your game play going forward.”
“Don’t let him put a happy face on it,” said Ryan, who also does the commentary for the live streaming during matches. “He tilts harder than anybody else.”
“That’s the term we use in esports for getting angry,” Ryan said. “It gets emotional, it gets intense, especially when you’re not doing well against one of these power schools, like NYIT. They’re the big guys in our conference. There are certain players who have issues at times holding in their emotions, especially when they’re frustrated, like in any other sport.
“There are good days and bad days. We do our best to keep everything in check and try to move on and learn something from every defeat, every mistake.”
It’s the coach’s job to help the squad learn from mistakes, same as in football or basketball or volleyball.
“Coach Pat focuses mostly on the analytic side of things,” Bradfield said. “We’ll go over vod (video) reviews, go over things he sees that we can improve on or things he notices that we’re doing really well in.
“He’ll try to pinpoint pieces of the game that he can accentuate for us. With Rocket League, we can look at each person’s perspective in each play and he’ll break that apart.”
When it all comes together, it’s a wonderful thing. In the 2020 ECC playoffs, Daemen crushed NYIT (New York Institute of Technology), then beat Southern New Hampshire, 3-1, in the finals.
“They went crazy in here,” Ryan said, looking around the esports office where Daemen competed remotely.
You know how it goes in sports. Win a title, raise expectations. This past season, they were unable to repeat.
“Fourth isn’t terrible, but it isn’t where we want to be,” Ryan said. “I think we’re going to have a real nice bounce-back season (in 2021-22). I have players I’m talking to. Jon’s coming back. We’ll be able to get him more support.
“We expect to be playoff teams in most everything we compete in, at the very least.”
Ryan wants to make sure the program continues to grow. As for the coach growing up, don’t count on it.
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.